City of Spies – Sorayya Khan – Book Review


CityOfSpies

Goodreads blurb: ‘God was everywhere, but so was the general.’

It is the summer of 1977 and Pakistan swelters in the unrelenting heat. Weeks after her eleventh birthday, Aliya Shah wakes up to the news that there has been a coup d’état, General Zia has taken over the country and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in jail. Although the shadow of the general and his increasingly puritanical edicts threaten to disrupt their comfortable existence, life goes on for Aliya much as before as she attends the American School in Islamabad. However, when a much loved young boy, the son of the family retainer, dies tragically in a hit-and-run accident, her world is turned upside down, especially when she discovers the terrible secret of the murderer’s identity.

City of Spies is coming-of-age story that explores Aliya’s conflicting loyalties and her on-going struggle to make sense of her world. Set in late 1970’s Islamabad and Lahore, City of Spies is a gripping novel that unfolds over thirty months in Pakistan’s tumultuous history.

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In the recent few months I have had the wonderful opportunity to read a couple of books that highlight the history of Bangladesh, one of India’s lesser known neighbors from the subcontinent. While one of them was a straightforward chronicling of the freedom struggle of the country from Pakistan, the other was a fictional story which used actual historical events in this freedom struggle as its backdrop. Between both these books I now have a fair idea of the history of this relatively young nation. And as if that weren’t enough, I now have had the good fortune of reading City of Spies by Sorayya Khan which gave me an opportunity to learn more about yet another illustrious neighbor of ours, Pakistan.

Using the point of view of an eleven year old girl in 1977, the author presents a picture of Pakistan where political turmoil rules the day with General Zia Ul Haq having taken over control of the country in a coup and the subsequent changes that the country faces in the aftermath. While the story itself deals with the everyday challenges of the protagonist Aliya and her teenage years, the author cleverly uses fiction and narrative plot points to bring out the changes sweeping across Pakistan and the subsequent impact it has on the characters in the story.

An accident which kills the son of one of Aliya’s family servants, the aftermath, the discovery of the person who caused the accident and how it impacts Aliya’s relationship and dealing both with the servant and the perpetrator of the crime form an interesting backdrop to what is primarily a political narrative of sorts. How General Zia, his form of Islam and his whimsical ways of running Pakistan affect the lives of everyday men and women is clearly brought out in the forms of various characters, events and everyday occurrences in the plot itself. And that to me, is where the author succeeds very well.

By using the point of view of an eleven year old girl who is half Danish and half Pakistani, the author also clearly brings out the dichotomy of the dual identity of the protagonist which forms a running thread throughout the narrative. Aliya’s struggles to ‘fit in’ with her friends at school, and ultimate resignation to the fact that she would always remain ‘half and half’ forms an interesting narrative arc which runs throughout the narrative.

In a nutshell, read this book for an incisive look into how human relationships are defined by extraneous circumstances, in this case political upheavals and circumstances and events such as accidents. If you had to read a fictional book set in Pakistan which will give a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who lived there in the late 70s, then this book is a good starting point, for sure.

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.

The Black Hill – Mamang Dai – Book Review


TheBlackHill_SmallGoodreads blurb: Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the action takes place in the Northeast—the region that spreads from Assam to Arunachal today. The East India Company is seeking to make inroads into the region and the local people—in particular the Abor and Mishmee tribes—fear their coming and are doing all they can to keep them out of their territories.

The author takes a recorded historical event—the mysterious disappearance of a French priest, Father Nicolas Krick in the 1850s and the execution of Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe for his murder—and woven a gripping, densely imagined work of fiction around it. And, even as the novel tells the story of an impossible journey and an elopement, it explores the themes of the lure of unknown worlds, the love people have for each other and their land and the forces of history.

Gimur, a girl from the Abor tribe, runs away with Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe, and they settle down on his land near the Tibetan border. Father Krick’s attempts to reach Tibet to set up a Jesuit mission are foiled repeatedly by the local people not because of any personal animus towards the priests or their work, but because they feel—rightly—that once the priests come, the British, with their guns and their garrisons will follow.

The story revolves around events in Gimur’s and Kajinsha’s villages and is also seen from the point of view of Father Krick, a gentle, intelligent man, devout but no bigot, whose determination to reach Tibet no matter what the cost, impacts tragically on all those who encounter him.

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The book begins with Gimur and her fellow villagers in Mebo being wary of the rumors of the Britishers making inroads into their territories and in this troubled backdrop, she finds herself being drawn to Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe. Breaking all conventional cultural norms of the time, she falls in love with him and elopes with him dreaming of a better future where she doesn’t feel constrained by all the rigidities of the traditions and customs that her Abor tribesmen have forced upon her all her life so far. Theirs is a passionate love which knows no boundaries and pretty soon they are happily married and settled down in Kajinsha’s village.

In the meantime, Father Krick, from faraway France lands on the shores of India with the sole intention of establishing a prefecture in Southern Tibet and spreading the message of the Lord there. Although he is quite aware that previous attempts to do so have been met with extreme hostilities and even violence on the part of the locals who would not even allow foreigners to set foot on their land, let alone establish a religion there, he is not dissuaded and is driven by this dream of his. To get to Tibet though, he has to pass through Abor and Mishmee territories and he sets off on this journey with nothing but hope and faith in the Lord to help him succeed.

Set in a time when tensions were at their highest between the various tribesmen among themselves, their distrust and hatred for the common enemy, the foreigner, the narrative of The Black Hill takes us readers through a wonderfully poignant tale of love, loss, faith and ultimately the human nature of endurance. Mamang Dai makes complete use of her knowledge of local traditions and customs to weave a wonderful tapestry of plot points which involve Gimur’s love story, her flight with Kajinsha, Krick’s first journey to Tibet through hostile territory, and the various tragedies that all three characters face in the course of their lives over the next two to three years.

Some parts of the narrative are especially haunting and will linger around in readers’ minds for a long time after the book has been read, and this to me, is why this book will hold a special place in my heart. The fact that the author chose to highlight the human aspects of the characters’ lives while momentous events unfurl around them is what makes this book eminently memorable. The author has resisted the temptation to make this a book about the colonial foreigners gradually making inroads into the hills and taking control and instead has chosen to set the stories of her protagonists in this melee, and it works wonderfully well in this book. The

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.

The Colonel Who Would Not Repent – Salil Tripathi – Book Review


TheColonelWhoWouldNotRepentGoodreads blurb: ‘Salil Tripathi brings together the narrative skill of a novelist and the analytical tools of a political journalist to give us the story of a nation that is absorbing, haunting and illuminating.’ Kamila Shamsie, author of A God in Every Stone.

Between March and December 1971, the Pakistani army committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale in the country’s eastern wing. Pakistani troops and their collaborators were responsible for countless deaths and cases of rape. Clearly, religion alone wasn’t enough to keep Pakistan’s two halves united. From that brutal violence, Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation, but the wounds have continued to fester. The gruesome assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s charismatic first prime minister and most of his family, the coups and counter-coups which followed, accompanied by long years of military rule were individually and collectively responsible for the country’s inability to come to grips with the legacy of the Liberation War.

Four decades later, as Bangladesh tries to bring some accountability and closure to its blood-soaked past through controversial tribunals prosecuting war crimes, Salil Tripathi travels the length and breadth of the country probing the country’s trauma through interviews with hundreds of Bangladeshis. His book offers the reader an unforgettable portrait of a nation whose political history since Independence has been marked more by tragedy than triumph.

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For somebody who prides himself on knowing more than quite a bit of current affairs, this book was a revelation in the sense that it opened up a whole new neighborhood in the form of the history of the formation of East Pakistan and subsequently the birth of Bangladesh to me. In fact, this book was so good that it managed to change my entire point of view on the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 as well.

Dealing with topics such as the birth of Pakistan, the influence that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman managed to exert on the whole of East Pakistan, the issues that East Pakistan had in terms of its cultural and regional identity being at loggerheads with West Pakistan all the time, the political upheaving that the Pakistani elections of 1971 caused, the author Salil Tripathi provides us with a fairly unbiased view of how the Bangladeshi crisis was aggravated in the first place. I personally found this portion of the book to be very revealing in that it helped me get a broader understanding of the political dynamics of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and the subsequent challenges that East Pakistan faced in terms of integrating with the larger and more influential West Pakistan. It also clearly highlighted how the West played ‘big brother’ to the East only on paper when the reality was that it clearly detested the East for more reasons than one.

The next portion of the book goes into great detail as to how the West initiates Operation Searchlight in March’71 which sets in motion a large chain of events over the next 9-10 months of the year in which armed conflict, its consequences on the larger populace of East Pakistan, the intervention of the Indian Armed Forces in the conflict and the subsequent declaration of independence of East Pakistan and the birth of a new nation Bangladesh is chronicled in great detail.

The book goes on to discuss war crimes such as rape and genocide rampantly committed by the West Pakistani army and its sympathizers and its impact on the overall Bangladeshi people. The fact that most of these crimes and its perpetrators are still unpunished and operate with impunity in national politics is something that still rankles the victims’ families and remains one of those inconvenient truths that the government tries to hide under the carpet. Chronicling various incidents and victims’ stories, this book presents quite a vivid picture of how armed conflict in any region of the world leaves behind volumes of untold stories of what is usually termed ‘collateral damage’ by governments and armed forces. A reading of this portion of the book simply goes on to highlight the severe impact that armed conflict in any part of the world has on the common man and his life who invariably is caught in a crossfire which is not his own making in most cases. The futility of violence as an option to resolve issues is yet again brought to the fore in this portion of the book.

The book finally ends chronicling the recent political developments in Bangladesh over the last two decades where the two prominent women politicians (both daughters of men who played significant roles in the liberation of the country) have ended up ensuring that the ‘politics of vendetta’ takes precedence over more pressing issues such as development of the nation itself.

What struck me as important and critical about this book was the fact that more than anything else, the East Pakistanis felt isolated from West Pakistan primarily due to the fact that they were not allowed to continue to live in harmony with the Bengali culture that they had followed all these years. A culture which assimilated Hindu, Muslim, Chakma and various other tribal faiths, beliefs, gods, goddesses, food and language was suddenly forced to adhere to strictly Islamic ideals and this, more than anything else, led to a whole lot of ‘bad blood’ both literally and figuratively between the Western and Eastern parts of Pakistan. In my opinion, this was yet another example where narrow minded politicians used religion, language and culture as weapons to achieve their personal goals of coming to power and staying there for as long as they possibly can. I wonder if today’s politicians of the region (and even the world over) will ever learn lessons from these episodes from history.

You can purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.